The Walking Dead, Season 5 Finale: “Conquer”

Season 5 has had a lot of ups, but even more downs. Where season 4 looked to be turning the ship in the right direction, now we’re right back where we started with repetitive main arcs, stalled subplots, cipher personalities, and unresolved questions. Between Father Gabriel and Sasha’s descents into madness, Michonne and Tyreese’s recovery from violence, Rick and Carol solidifying their brutal plans, Glenn and Maggie keeping everyone from killing everyone else, and Abraham, Eugene, Rosita, and Tara, um, existing, The Walking Dead keeps on keeping on. Like the rest of the series, “Conquer” looked great and effectively teased out tension, but ultimately the whole thing just sorta sat there.

Well, kids, the Scott Gimple honeymoon period is officially over. It’s clear now that while some of The Walking Dead’s problems are due to the showrunners and AMC, most of the issues lie with the conceit itself. The show has never figured out how to handle a sprawling (or diverse) cast, meaning every time we have to deal with more than the core team of Rick, Carol, Daryl, Carl, Michonne, Glenn, Maggie, and whatever Black dude the show hasn’t killed off yet, the whole thing grinds to a halt. Last week’s episode “Try” is a perfect example of that. Carl’s teenage romance with whatshername is fine and all, but distracts from the much more interesting story of Sasha’s PTSD. Rick is out of the blue suddenly madly in love with another whatshername, so much so that he’s willing to bring down all of Alexandria just to get in her pants.

All of the group has acted like they’re waiting for Alexandria to turn out to be another Woodbury, but rather than digging into that storyline we’re stuck watching a couple of middle-agers be sad while listening to Nine Inch Nails. And, in fact, the town is less like Woodbury and more like the quarry camp writ large. The avalanche of total stupidity is shocking. How the hell have they lasted this long when they can’t even lock a frakking gate? They aren’t just naive, they’re unrepentantly ignorant.

The Walking Dead season 5 finale Conquer

It’s not that I don’t want to care about the Alexandrians, it’s that 42 minutes isn’t enough time to give the main characters enough to do to stay vital while also fleshing out the characterization of the teeming hordes of newcomers. Like I said, this is a persistent issue. In the quarry camp, on Hershel’s farm, in Woodbury, and especially in the prison, there were a constant stream of never-before-seen extras populating the background, none of whom did anything useful except get killed so as to motivate the stars, yet all of whom the viewer was expected to care deeply about. The show seems flummoxed when we the viewers don’t care about these background figures, as if the show is completely blind to the fact that it hadn’t done its job of giving us any substantial reasons to care. There has to be more to their existence in the story than their presence as a bunch of innocent, good people trapped in a perpetual hellscape. If everyone is going to die then I need to get to know the characters in order to be affected by their deaths. (And no, TWD, it doesn’t count if you only make them relevant and meaningful 15 minutes before killing them off.)

Looking back on the whole of season 5, I get what they were going for. The writers wanted to explore the concept of “us versus them” and the ramifications of how Rick and company reacted to those strangers. Sometimes they tried to be nice to people who didn’t deserve it (Father Gabriel, the hospital cops), sometimes they had to go in with defenses up (Terminus, the Alexandrians), and every time they reluctantly held out their hands they got bit. It’s also about trust; learning how to trust others and yourself. On the surface, it sounds fascinating to look at how Carol might balance the safety of a secure home with the knowledge that her neighbor was being beaten by the town’s only surgeon. Or looking at Michonne come to terms with her own PTSD as she watches it unfold in Sasha. Or Rick finally, finally getting the chance to go back to how things were before the zombie apocalypse. Or by juxtaposing how Rick has devolved while Morgan evolved between last season and this.

The Walking Dead season 5 finale Conquer

Trouble is, the show doesn’t want to tell those interesting stories. Tantalizing threads go nowhere: Why didn’t Maggie tell anyone about what she overheard from Father Gabriel? Did Nick sneak over the walls to draw Glenn out or was he up to something else? Some story threads aren’t given enough detail to have any impact beyond sound and fury, see: the Wolves. We’ve done Alexandria and the Wolves before; Deanna is not as exciting as the Governor or Officer Dawn (or Rick back when he was running the prison), and the Wolves aren’t any more fearsome that the Terminus cannibals or Creeper Joe. If TWD plans to spend the rest of its 12 seasons drawing from the same old well…*feels migraine coming on*…

At least Lennie James is back. Between Deanna’s cowardice, Rick’s impulsive violence, Carol’s Machiavellian pragmatism, Morgan’s zen-ness, and whatever is brewing with the Wolves, season 6 should (hopefully) be intriguing.

Final Thoughts

  • “Just tell them a story they want to hear. That’s what I’ve been doing since I got here.” “Why?” “Because these people are children, and children like stories.” And that’s why Carol is just the best. Imagine what an awesome plot it would’ve been if they pitted Deanna and Carol against each other instead of Rick. Or, even better, if Carol was in charge all the damn time. With Daryl as her second in command, there’s nothing she couldn’t overcome. Now that’s a spinoff I’d pay good money to see.
  • “You don’t want to leave this place, and you don’t want to lie? Oh sunshine, you don’t get both.”
  • “Come at me. No? Yeah? No.”
  • “Simply put, there is a vast ocean of shit that you people don’t know shit about. Rick knows every fine grain of said shit. And then some.”
  • Speaking of Carol, I suspect she went to Pete’s house with the sole intent of egging him into confronting Rick. I doubt she planned on him taking out Reg, but I don’t believe for a second she didn’t expect Rick to kill him with Deanna’s permission. Reg was a tragic bonus, as not only was he weak (and therefore a risk to the community’s survival), but his death drew the Alexandrians closer to Rick.
  • Technically speaking, the finale was only about 20 minutes longer than the usual ep, but Christ it felt like it went on for eons.
  • With Noah and Tyreese’s death, we’re now back to fridging PoC to motivate white folks. Can you not, TWD? Ugh.
  • I like Aaron. It’s nice to have a gay character on TV whose personality isn’t just “gay.”
  • ICYMI, the title of The Walking Dead spinoff is…Fear the Walking Dead. Yep. Remember how we were talking about how TWD lacks in originality and creativity? Case in point.
  • Oh yeah, Eugene and Abraham made peace, Tara woke up, and not even the great Seth Gilliam can improve the trash that is Father Gabriel. Riveting stuff, indeed.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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